Bryce Canyon is a spectacular natural feature in southern Utah. The Bryce 100 is an out-and-back race in the National Forest adjacent to Bryce Canyon National Park. The course features some 18,600′ of climbing, with most of it higher than 8000′. Although daytime temperatures can be quite dry and warm, the weather for the race this weekend was mountainous ~ cool with multiple thundershowers.
As the small field (<120 runners) congregated around a fire pit at the start line, I considered leaving my cap in my start bag. “No,” I thought, “best not to make a mistake that I’ll regret later.” Little did I know, I had probably been making a critical mistake all week.
The route starts with 2 miles of dirt road so that the field can spread a bit. By the time we turned onto the single track, there was plenty of room for everyone to enjoy the forest trail. This first section was a sampler of the beauty to come: lush forest alternated with the exotic red sandstone formations that make Bryce famous.
Sometime before the first aid station I peeled of the trail for a quick pee stop. I watched the stream of urine and was puzzled to see the color somewhere between “mountain dew” and “coca-cola.” It was early and I had been drinking fine. I refilled water at the first aid station and cruised on.
My training and taper for Bryce 100 had gone really well with the help of Coach Peter (Run on Dirt), including fun practice races at The Canyons 100k and Silver State Trail Half Marathon. The only hiccup had been a bit of a hamstring strain two weeks before the race. Panicky to heal up in time, I had been taking NSAIDs (Ibuprofen or Aleve) right up to the start of the race.
The miles clicked by as I comfortably ran the lovely single track. I visited with a few runners, but then remembered to save my air for running – it did feel thin as we neared 9000′. Somewhere before the second aid station, I peeled off for another potty stop. This time the urine included red. It was bit early for my period, but possible. Maybe that was it. I would investigate at the next aid station.
I was going though my aid station list in my head when a chap on the trail told me I was the second woman. I kinda hated knowing that only 28 miles into 100. I got into the aid station and asked where I could find the honey pot – a tiny tent with a toilet seat atop a bucket. I was alarmed to see straight bright red blood. It was definitely not my period.
I left the aid station alongside another runner who turned out to be a doc and he shared some insights. He told me how hard pain killers are on the kidneys and that he had literally never taken them in his life. We discussed warning signs that I should watch for, including: lower back (referred kidney) pain, swelling in the lower extremities, or unusual muscle fatigue.
I decided that I would drop as soon as possible if I noticed any of these symptoms. I also decided that I would not run solo into the night if my urine wasn’t substantially cleared up by then.
The next section was rolling hills up at the highest elevations of the course. Intermittent morning rain showers had cleared to dry and pleasantly cool weather. I was happy that I had kept my cap to keep the rain off my glasses. (Needless to say, I had been carrying my water-proof jacket the entire day.) I felt good and enjoyed the ride. I hydrated well and tried to tuck away my pee worries.
Next the course descended to an aid station at mile 41 before a climb to the Pink Cliffs Aid Station. Dark clouds gathered for the forecasted afternoon thunder showers. The rain started as I came around the corner to one of the most dramatic views on the course. Thunder, lightning and hail soon followed.
I arrived at the Pink Cliffs Aid Station (mile 46.5) to find a few runners taking shelter from the hail, including the first woman. I did not intend to stop and get cold. Betsy had taught me better.
Instead, I grabbed a dry long-sleeved shirt and gloves from my drop bag, and found my way out of the aid station, off that hilltop, away from the first woman, and into the storm.
Running alone in the storm gave me a jolt of adrenaline. I moved quickly, but also remembered Murray from Hardrock. He had to drop one year after an agitated descent in a thunderstorm. He said that he was so wound-up and focused on the storm that he failed to eat or drink. He ended up too cold and spent, and didn’t recover to finish the Hardrock. I was careful to take care of myself on the way down.
During these miles, I observed that my urine would substantially improve with all the hydration, but once I picked up the running intensity, it would get bloody again. I arrived at the turn-around point (mile 51.5) and considered my options. This would be a good place to drop, in terms of getting a ride, but the reality was that I was moving well and I felt fine. I made the turn around and headed back up to Pink Cliffs. My hands were swelling, though not more than on a hot race day. (Of course, it was not at all a hot race day.)
The return climb to Pink Cliffs went faster than I had expected and the storm subsided. I arrived back at the aid station on top about an hour earlier than I was expecting. It was 6:15 pm and this was a big stop for me to switch over to the night gear. I received VIP treatment as the first woman and worked quickly through my prepared checklist. I left the aid station buoyed by my efficiency and headed down the other side of the hill.
I had 5.5 miles to make a go or no-go decision. The next aid station would be the last opportunity to get a car ride off the course before going back to the higher elevations for the night. I was still running in first place amongst the small field of women. But the better I ran, the worse my pee looked. I felt my wrists tightening into my watch and pacelette. I poked at my lower legs to check the swelling. They were swollen, but not horribly so.
The descent leveled and I had 2 miles to go to make the call. Like a mountaineer grappling with a set turn-around time, I knew that I was too close to too many of my “drop criteria” to risk running alone into the night. Some combination of factors had combined to create a “perfect storm” for my kidneys, and I couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Was my health actually in danger? Was I irresponsibly risking a hospital stay far from home? Would I ever get to run in the front of the field (albeit small) at a 100-mile race again? I can’t know the answer to these questions. Ultimately, I considered my parents, husband and children, and knew that my day would ending at 100k instead of 100 miles. I slowly continued on the trail as I unpinned my race bib to turn in when I reached the aid station at mile 62.
I was grateful to hitch a ride back to the hotel room, where my friend Claire greeted me with kindness and sympathy. She would be running the 50k the following morning (and by running, I actually mean winning). I was sorry to keep her up late.
In the morning I made two trips over to the finish line. First, to gather some bags and see a few of the ladies finish. I unfortunately arrived too late to see the first woman arrive, but I did get to greet a number of finishers, including the incredible Tonia Smith, who finished in second place with half a pancreas. Yes, you read that correctly: Tonia survived pancreatic cancer and many rounds of chemo just last year, then came to Bryce to finish a 100-mile run in absolute style.
Next I spent some time exploring inside Bryce Canyon National Park. While the race course is beautiful, it is only a tiny taste of the spectacular vistas inside the National Park. I can’t wait to return with the family and explore every craggly corner.
I returned to the finish area a second time to greet Claire. I was not surprised when she was the first woman to cross the 50k finish line (and I believe third overall). She is running strong and ready for her second Western States in three weeks.
Later in the afternoon I retrieved most of my drop bags. They were wet and dirty. Some items were spent, but others items – like the batteries for night running – sat untouched. Claire was out of the room for a bit, so I finally succumbed to a round of tears, mourning the loss of my third 100-mile finish. Claire must have noticed my red, swollen eyes when she returned, but was gracious enough not to mention it.
We made a plan to see the sunrise over Bryce Canyon before we embarked on our drive home via US 50 (The Loneliest Road in America). We spent an hour in the park, watching the sun slowly illuminate the clouds and red sandstone earth. It was magical.
We returned to a beautiful summer afternoon in Truckee. I picked up groceries and fixed dinner for the family. We enjoyed our first meal of the season on the deck.
I am happy to report that my urine is clearing and I feel fine. I know that I don’t have unfinished race business with Bryce 100. My first-ever DNF (Did Not Finish) was a successful failure. I will keep investigating the cause of my “angry kidneys” and look forward to a summer of running followed by Wasatch 100 in September.
Janice Pelster says
Job well done, and a smart decision. So proud of you.
Love you, Mom. Yes, I was thinking of you!
Sometimes one of the most difficult things to do…..listening to what our body is trying to tell us. Kudos to you for listening—You made the right choice.
Thanks, sweet cousin! It was certainly difficult and there has been plenty of second-guessing, but I’m home and happy now and all is well.
Betsy Nye says
Amazining Loving Giving Helen. I am so proud of you for making the right call.I forgot to say smart!You listened to your body and made the right call.Just think 3 years ago you said to me you would never run 100 miles?Love your report!LIve , Love, and Learn:) Love You Betsy
Boopstinator ~ you are ALWAYS with me when I run! xoxoxox
Thanks for telling your story, I actually just read it as the bedtime story to the kids since they’ve (we’ve)been worried all weekend about you. Avian is “never taking painkillers again”.
Much love and respect for you Helen; it must have been so hard to make the call. Xoxoxo
Big kisses to you all! I am right there with Avian, that’s for sure!
Julia Millon says
Great job, Helen! Your words are very sincere and wise. I’m sure you’ll be running strong through the year!
Julia ~ I know you deal with way bigger challenges ~ you inspire!
Lorenzo Wimmer says
Great job Helen, I’m always so in awe of your physical abilities and especially your wise decision making under duress! Old Chinese Military General’s admonition…”She who knows when she can fight and when she cannot, will be victorious.” – Sun Tzu
Thanks for the sweet note, Lorenzo!
Jane Lufkin says
So glad you are OK. I think you are amazing Helen. You did the right thing. I love reading about your adventures. You are asking a lot of your body to run that far. Best to listen to what it’s telling you. Bravo!
I’m glad you enjoyed the read, Jane! See you out there soon! ~H
Sarah Lavender Smith says
Bravo Helen — you were smart, and strong. I love your oxymoron at the end, “a successful failure,” because it was that! I’ve never peed blood but if I did, I too would stop. See you soon in Colorado!
Sarah ~ It was most difficult to stop because I was feeling pretty good otherwise ~ that darn Central Governor is in charge of everything, though, huh? ~H
Thank you for your race report. I’m looking forward to running the Bryce 100 this year, and I’m pretty sure I’m borrowing your amazing pacelette! It’s perfect. My hope is to finish around 34 hours, being a bit of a slower runner than yourself. 😉
Scott Martin says
You made such a courageous and smart decision. Not sure many ultrarunners in your position would have been able to let their brains rule their big hearts. We can learn a lot from your example!
Scott, thanks so much for the kind words!
Tom Wroblewski says
Helen…so excited to see you return to Bryce 100 for 2017! Healthy, strong, and hungry to run. Looking forward to seeing you rise up to the challenge once again.